U.S. Commission on Civil Rights condemns violence by Neo-Nazis, but declines to criticize violence by club-wielding ‘Antifa’ counter demonstrators

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Washington, DC – There is overwhelming evidence that so-called “Antifa” counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville were sometimes the initiators of violence. They were by no means the majority of counterdemonstrators, but their presence was significant. Despite this, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights refused to include them in their condemnation of the events in Charlottesville.

On Friday, the Commission issued a long and detailed condemnation of the “violent and deadly events in Charlottesville … motivated by racial and religious intolerance.” That condemnation was joined by all 8 members of the Commission, both liberal and conservative. It correctly expressed “profound dismay over the violent and deadly events in Charlottesville, Virginia” and mourned the tragic death of Heather Heyer.

Commissioner Gail Heriot

Commissioner Gail Heriot proposed adding the following sentence to the Commission’s statement: “Though we support peaceful protest and note that most of the counter-demonstrators were peaceful, we condemn violence by anyone, including violence by so-called Antifa demonstrators.” Her motion was seconded by Commissioner Peter Kirsanow. But it was defeated by a vote of 2-6, with all Commissioners appointed by Democrats voting “no,” and both Commissioners appointed by Republicans voting “yes.”

Heriot’s motion should have been non-controversial, but it was not. There is no serious factual dispute that Antifa demonstrators committed violence. The New York Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg, an eyewitness to the events, tweeted that “The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right. I saw club-wielding antifa beating white nationalists being led out of the park.” Stolberg later tweeted that she should have said “violent” rather than “hate-filled.” Stolberg also quoted the Charlottesville police chief as having said that there were “mutually combative individuals in the crowd.” Videos of skirmishes taken in Charlottesville show that the Antifa were the aggressors on some occasions.

Leaders of the Antifa movement have not been shy about admitting their willingness to use of violence. The pseudonymous Frank Sabaté, an Antifa leader, told the New York Times, “‘Their existence [i.e. the existence of neo-Nazis] itself is violence … so I don’t think using force or violence to oppose them is unethical.’” The same article quoted Emily Rose Nauert, another Antifa leader, this way: “‘You need violence in order to protect nonviolence,’ Ms. Nauert added. ‘That’s what’s very obviously necessary right now. It’s full-on war, basically.’”[1]

The term “Antifa” is intended as an abbreviation for “anti-fascist.” But its members are often black-shirted, masked with bandanas and armed with clubs. The image is hardly one of anti-fascism. The New York Times described the Antifa as “a diverse collection of anarchists, communists and socialists” with roots in “the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s and the Occupy Wall Street Movement.”

Democratic Members of the Commission offered various reasons for opposing Heriot’s motion. For example, Commissioner Michael Yaki (appointed to the Commission by Nancy Pelosi) argued that “whether some got carried away or not,” the counterdemonstrators were on the correct side of things. Referring to New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Commissioner Karen Narasaki, an Obama appointee, argued that the Commission should not “trust everything written in the press.”

Commissioner Peter Kirsanow

Commissioner Heriot stated, “During the ill-fated Weimar Republic, gangs of Nazi thugs frequently battled gangs of Communist thugs in the streets. Many German citizens were disinclined to condemn the Nazis, because they thought they posed a lesser threat than the Communists. That turned out to be wrong. And while the United States is nowhere near the level of street fighting and political disorder that characterized Germany at that time, the right way to deal with battling political thugs is to condemn them both.”

Commissioner Kirsanow stated, “The Commission dishonors its legacy by condemning violence only when it’s committed by disfavored groups. By refusing to condemn Antifa’s violence, the Commission’s majority sanctions beatings and other violent conduct—provided it’s politically correct.”

In addition to their service on USCCR, Heriot is a professor of law at the University of San Diego.  Among her areas of expertise are civil rights, employment law, torts and remedies.  Kirsanow is a partner at a Cleveland law firm where he serves on the firm’s Labor & Employment Practice Group and is a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee.  Both are founders of the New American Civil Rights Project, an informal association of individuals interested in civil rights issues: www.newamericancivilrightsproject.org.

[1] Thomas Fuller, Alan Feuer & Serge F. Kovalski, “Antifa” Grows as Left-Wing Faction Set to, Literally, Fight the Right, N.Y. Times (Aug. 17, 2017)(ellipsis in original).

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